Of Maize and Meat; Culinary Traditions and Cultural Identity in Mexico and Argentina

Article excerpt

Of maize and meat

Culinary traditions and cultural identity in Mexico and Argentina

ALTHOUGH the food that groupsof people choose to eat is undoubtedly dictated by their physiological needs, their environment and the technical and economic facilities available to them, these factors form part of a wider context--the social and historical background and the outlook on the world which are specific to each society. In other words, exclusively ideological motives play an important role in the choice of the staple foodstuffs and food processing techniques that make it possible to create a culinary tradition that is primarily recognized as a sign of cultural identification.

The ideology that each society createsin relation to food and eating is reflected in the choice of foodstuffs, the techniques employed in preparing them, and the rules laid down for their consumption. What is the relationship between the physical need to eat and the ideology which justifies or determines what is eaten? In an attempt to answer that question, we shall take two examples from Latin America: maize (Indian corn) in Mexico and meat in Argentina.

Even if soybeans or rice were cheaperto grow or produced higher yields, Mexican farmers would never dream of growing these crops instead of maize, which accounts for 80 per cent of their diet. For them maize is a cultural landmark of fundamental importance as well as a source of nutrition. According to Maya mythology, man was created by the gods from maize dough. Other materials such as clay and wood had proved useless. Only people made from maize survived to venerate the plant from which they had originated and which provided them with their daily sustenance.

Every ear of maize, every morsel oftortilla (maize cake), every sip of atole-- the traditional beverage made from maize flour--provide incontrovertible proof that feeding is not merely a chemical and biological process but a form of direct communication with the deities. Through that communion, which is renewed every day, people bear witness to their faith in the gods, whose presence guarantees that life will go on.

Since the gods chose maize to createand feed mankind, how could man ever doubt its perfection, cease to revere it, or fail to believe in its origins and its divine reproductive powers? Maize has had divine status for centuries. Even today, Mexican Indians are reluctant to sell their maize because that would be tantamount to trading in their own flesh. Maize is grown exclusively for personal consumption.

Maize is the Mexican farmer's onlycriterion of taste, to the exclusion of all others. No other foodstuff can replace the tortilla which the women prepare with maize dough and then brown on the comal, a baked earthenware hotplate. In this context, quantity is not important; even if people gorge themselves on meat or fish they will still feel unsatisfied if they do not eat tortillas. On the other hand, a few tortillas accompanied by a pinch of salt or chili pepper will be sufficient to stave off hunger.

The tortilla has formed the Mexicans'taste for food. It is made from maize which is boiled and then kneaded into a soft, smooth dough. Compared with such a food, which calls for little chewing, meat is unpleasant, regardless of its quality. Roast meat is regarded as hard and dry, and it often happens that when hunters roast the animals they kill, the women later boil the roast meat in the kitchen.

In this indigenous culture there is ageneral feeling that maize is the only nourishing food. All other foods may be eaten for pleasure but they are not considered to have any nutritional value, because, it is assumed, they will be quickly expelled as waste. A man achieves social recognition when he begins to farm the land, and a woman when she begins to cook. Only when they have shown that they can grow and cook maize can they start a family. Only then do men become eligible for positions of responsibility within the community. …